Freedom City

31st October 2017

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On 29th October I stood on the Tyne Bridge watching the moon peek through the lattice of the bridge as the words of Martin Luther King rang out to the thousands gathered to mark the 50th anniversary of his visit to Newcastle.

Earlier in the afternoon I was part of the crowd gathered around Grey’s Monument in Newcastle to witness a dance and theatre performance to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King being awarded an honorary degree from the University of Newcastle.  The University was the only one in the UK to make such an award to Dr. King in his lifetime.  The events were part of Freedom on the Tyne, one element of Freedom City, a series of events across the year organised to mark that occasion and struggles worldwide against racism, poverty and war.

The performance was one of five across the city which highlighted flashpoints in the struggle against injustice, the Amritsar massacre in India in 1919; the Peterloo massacre in Manchester, in 1819; Sharpeville in South Africa 1960; and the Jarrow March in 1936.  The performance at the Monument marked the occasion of the march across the bridge in Selma, Alabama USA in 1965, when civil rights demonstrators were shot by Alabama state troopers.  Images of violence from that march shocked the world and forced the Alabama authorities to permit a further march, led by Dr. King, which helped change the course of the civil rights struggle in the United States.

As well as identifying the historical importance of the civil rights movement, the performance stressed the ongoing issue of the killing of young black people by the police in the United States. This has resulted in the increasingly vocal Black Lives Matter campaign and the controversial protests of many black American athletes, refusing to stand for the national anthem at major sporting occasions.

As the crowds continued to swell the performance reached its crescendo, echoing the words of Dr. King against racism, poverty and war.  With the performance over at the Monument, the crowd began to move down Grey Street, along Shakespeare Street then onto Pilgrim Street towards the Tyne Bridge.  Performers and crowds from across the city were converging on this single point, symbolic of the bridge in Selma, and the setting for a spectacular aerial display and rousing finale of light, music and performance, in which all struggles were joined.

I was taken back in my memory to another bridge in Newcastle, almost forty years ago, when a callow youthful version of myself boarded a bus destined for London.  I was embarking upon a journey which I thought would be one of seven hours, to be part of the Rock Against Racism gathering in Victoria Park in April 1978, to be part of a national protest against racism, poverty and war.

Almost forty years on that journey continues.  There are still many bridges and many rivers to cross.  However, as the many issues highlighted by Freedom City show, with the continued collective steps of us all, it will be possible to reach the other side.

Steve Bishop

For more information on Freedom City visit freedomcity2017.com

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